You wouldn’t expect this from the 71-year-old gay leader of the successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland. But scholar, senator, and civil rights activist David Norris not only calls Pope Francis a “terrific beacon of hope around the world,” he also bemoans the Catholic Church’s dwindling influence in his homeland.
I’d call that inspiring magnanimity, or even a New Testament moment of be-kind-to-your-persecutors grace. For the Church has, and still does, consider Norris and his fellow homosexuals a “disordered” crew.
Yet when Norris first saw the newly elected Pope Francis at the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, “when he pushed away the man who was trying to decorate him like a Christmas tree and said ‘buonasera‘ (good evening) and commanded silence from that vast audience, that was terribly impressive …. I suddenly had a leap of heart.”
So said Norris in an interview last week with Jim Braude and me on our WGBH-Boston radio show.
And his admiration for this “wonderful” pope has only increased as Norris has watched Francis help the homeless and migrants and go after Vatican bank corruption and financial systems favoring the rich over the poor. “Here is a man who got down in a prison and washed the feet of women prisoners,” said Norris, who then called Francis that “beacon of hope around the world — although he’s not great on gay rights.”
Not great on the cause of Norris’s life, the senator conceded, chuckling. Yet Norris is still willing to publicly call Francis a powerful force for good, no matter how that might irk gay partisans demanding all-or-nothing allegiance.
Norris then lamented the Church’s declining influence as a moral force in Ireland, blaming not just its sexual abuse cover-up, but also what he called its dismal mid-level management team. Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointed cardinals and bishops who “are very conservative and really pretty mediocre intellectually and out of touch with modern reality.” No vision, Norris said.
Francis, however, is both a visionary and a “very humble man.”
Norris can be humble himself, insisting last week that he “wasn’t really a leader” of the gay marriage movement even though his countrymen disagree.
Born in 1944, Norris recalled growing up with only one radio station, no television channels, very few foreign newspapers, and “a complete silence on the subject of homosexuality. So I had the experience of everybody else of my generation thinking you were the only (gay) one and wondering was it some kind of awful disease.” Then came “the shock of realizing it could be a disaster socially, financially, and every other way. And you were condemned by the Church, by the state, and by society.”
He came out nonetheless in the late 1960s when homosexuality in Ireland was still a jailable offense. He began helping in the courts, assisting gay men, many of them closeted, who were arrested and often disgraced. His many legal cases against Ireland eventually led to the 1993 overthrow of laws criminalizing homosexuality. In 2011, he made a serious run at the Irish presidency with gay equality at the center of his campaign. But he withdrew after revelations that he tried to support a long-time former lover convicted of statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy.
Norris apologized, admitting he had neither shown proper compassion for the teenager nor fully appreciated the seriousness of the crime. Clearly the crowds who cheered him wildly last week at Dublin Castle — when he threw fists in the air shouting the famous French motto “liberte, egalite, fraternite” — had forgiven him. Norris has long been a politician willing to admit mistakes and seek forgiveness and equally important: to question the absolute certainty of those who refuse to revisit a mistake even in light of new knowledge and understanding.
A member of Ireland’s Anglican Church, Norris has said of his religious faith, “I am the kind of Christian who believes that the most important theological principle is the principle of positive doubt. Even Christ doubted, on the cross. And I think if people say they hear the voice of God all the time and say they know what to do, then impose that on you, politically, it is theological tyranny. Whereas if you have doubt, it stops you from abusing your religious belief. Religion can be so abused in the interests of power, especially on behalf of institutions and governments.”
In his now half-century challenge to a powerful religious institution — the Catholic Church — and a government — his own — he has managed to keep both that “positive doubt” and a wry sense of humor, which always helps.
Writing about the marriage victory days ago in The Irish Times, Norris noted that the win was for civil, not religious marriage, and that no one plans to make the Catholic Church marry gay couples.
“But taking into account that (priests and bishops) routinely bless agricultural instruments, domestic pets, and bombs, I personally don’t think it would kill them to give a blessing to two people who love each other. And as for the domestic pets,” said Norris, “how do they know they weren’t blessing lesbian goldfish?”